Estelle Sutherland | Europe and Eurasia Fellow
Spain has made international news in recent weeks when its cabinet approved a bill which would offer paid menstrual leave to workers who experience painful periods. The proposed bill would allow up to three days’ menstrual leave per month. However, this is based on the condition that they provide a medical certificate proving they suffer from severe period pain. If passed through parliament, it would be the first of its kind in Europe, following only a handful of countries with similar legislation, including Japan, South Korea and Zambia.
This bill sets a benchmark for Spain’s European neighbours in its recognition of the physical discomfort that many people experience while menstruating. In response to the passing of this proposal, Spanish Equality Minister Irene Montero tweeted “the taboo, the stigma, the suffering in silence is over.” Montero is a vocal advocate for women’s sexual and reproductive health and was instrumental in pushing for this bill.
Spain’s advocacy for women’s rights has increased notably in recent years. There has been a growing feminist movement which has led to mass nation-wide protests, with over 500,00 citizens protesting gender inequality on International Women’s Day in 2019. Sanchez’s coalition government - elected in January 2020 - has placed significant weight on addressing gender inequality, with women making up approximately 60 per cent of his cabinet. This recent bill forms part of a suite of reforms aimed at addressing issues surrounding sexual health, pregnancy, childbirth and abortion. These reforms - constituting part of the proposed changes to ‘Organic Law 2/2010’ - include maternity leave from the 39th week of pregnancy, free access to contraception in high schools, and the removal of certain barriers to abortion.
Sanchez has further shown his commitment to women’s rights through other workplace initiatives. In October 2020, two pieces of legislation were passed which were also aimed at promoting gender equality in the workplace: the Equality Plan Decree and the Equal Pay Decree. These laws compel companies to identify pay disparities amongst genders and create action plans to address any adverse findings.
It cannot be doubted that Sanchez’s work in the field of gender equality has effectuated material change to the social and economic position of women in Spain. The country has jumped in its ranking in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, placing eighth and 14th in the world in 2020 and 2021 respectively. This is a significant increase from 24th in 2018. Global support for Spain’s menstrual leave bill has prompted international discussion, with many applauding this legislation as a move towards greater recognition of women’s rights in the workplace.
Yet this bill is not without criticism. While recognising the positive intentions behind this proposal, some have warned that it may actually lead to an increase in discrimination against women. One such critic is Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary-general of the Unión General de Trabajadores (the UGT), one of Spain’s largest unions. Antoñanzas warns this bill could impact ‘women’s access to the labour market’ by influencing employers to recruit men over women, to avoid hiring people who may access this leave. There is also the risk that very few people will take advantage of this leave due to the social stigma surrounding menstruation, a trend seen in Japan since it introduced paid menstrual leave in 1947. As such, whilst Sanchez’s government is taking material steps towards gender equality, it will continue to face challenges in the form of Spanish societal norms, which may limit the capacity of its law-making.
It is clear that Sanchez’ government has made decisive strides in the direction of gender equality in Spain in recent years. What is less clear is whether this most recent bill will operate in favour of women in practice. While opinions are divided, it seems that the acknowledgment of the menstruation pain that many people experience while at work has, at the very least, brought Spain one step closer to challenging the stigma surrounding menstruation.
Estelle Sutherland is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.